Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Witch, an electronic edition

by Mary Johnston [Johnston, Mary, 1870-1936]

date: 1914
source publisher: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
collection: Genre Fiction

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IT was said that the Queen was dying. She lay at Richmond, in the palace looking out upon the wintry, wooded, March-shaken park, but London, a few miles away, had daily news of how she did. There was much talk about her—the old Queen—much telling of stories and harking back. She had had a long reign—"Not far from fifty years, my masters!"—and in it many important things had happened. The crowd in the streets, the barge and wherry folk upon the wind-ruffled river, the roisterers in the taverns drinking ale or sack, merchants and citizens in general talking of the times in the intervals of business, old soldiers and seamen ashore, all manner of folk, indeed, agreed upon the one most important thing. The most important thing had been the scattering of the Armada fifteen years before. That disposed of, opinions differed as to the next most important. The old soldiers were for all fighting wherever it had occurred. The seamen and returned adventurers threw for the voyages of Drake and Frobisher and Gilbert and Raleigh. With these were inclined to agree the great merchants


and guild-masters who were venturing in the East India and other joint-stock companies. The little merchant and guild fellows agreed with the great. A very large number of all classes claimed for the overthrow of Popery the first place. On the other hand, a considerable number either a little hurriedly slurred this, or else somewhat too anxiously and earnestly supported the assertion. One circle, all churchmen, lauded the Act of Uniformity, and the pains and penalties provided alike for Popish recusant and non-conforming Protestant. Another circle, men of a serious cast of countenance and of a growing simplicity in dress, left the Act of Uniformity in obscurity, and after the deliverance from the Pope, made the important happening the support given the Protestant principle in France and the Netherlands. A few extreme loyalists put in a claim for the number of conspiracies unearthed and trampled into nothingness—Scottish conspiracies, Irish conspiracies, Spanish conspiracies, Westmoreland and Northumberland conspiracies, Throgmorton conspiracies—the death of the Queen of Scots, the death, two years ago, of Essex.

All agreed that the Queen had had a stirring reign—all but the latter end of it. The last few years—despite Irish affairs—had been dull and settled, a kind of ditch-water stagnation, a kind of going downhill. Fifty years, almost, was a long time for one person to reign. . . .

On a time the Queen had been an idol and a cyno-


sure—for years the love of a people had been warm about her. It had been a people struggling to become a nation, beset with foreign foes and inner dissensions, battling for a part in new worlds and realms. She had led the people well, ruled well, come out with them into the Promised Land. And now there was a very human dissatisfaction with the Promised Land, for the streams did not run milk and honey nor were the sands golden. As humanly, the dissatisfaction involved the old Queen. She could not have been, after all, the Queen that they had thought her. . . . After crying for so many years "Long live Queen Elizabeth!" there would come creeping into mind a desire for novelty. King James,—King James! The words sounded well, and promised, perhaps, the true Golden Age. But they were said, of course, under breath. The Queen was not dead yet.

They told strange stories of her—the old Queen; usually in small, select companies where there were none but safe men. As March roared on, there was more and more of this story-telling, straws that showed the way the tide was setting. They were rarely now stories of her youth, of her courage and fire, of her learning, of the danger in which she lived when she was only "Madam Elizabeth," of her imprisonment in the Tower—nor were they stories of her coronation, and of the way, through so many long years, she had queened it, of her "mere Englishness," her steady courage, her power of work, her


councillors, her wars, and her statecraft. Leaving that plane, they were not so often either stories of tragic errors, of wrath and jealousy, finesse and deception, of arbitrary power, of the fret and weakness of the strong.—But to-day they told stories of her amours, real or pretended. They repeated what she had said to Leicester and Leicester had said to, her, what she had said to Alençon and Alençon had answered. They dug up again with a greasy mind her girlhood relations with Seymour, they created lovers for her and puffed every coquetry into a fullblown liaison; here they made her this man's mistress and that man's mistress, and there they said that she could be no man's mistress. They had stories to tell of her even now, old and sick as she was. They told how, this winter, for all she was so ill at ease, she would be dressed each day in stiff and gorgeous raiment, would lie upon her pillows so, with rings upon her fingers and her face painted, and when a young man entered the room, how she gathered strength. . . .

The March wind roared down the streets and shook the tavern signs.

In the palace at Richmond, there was a great room, and in the room there was a great bed. The room had rich hangings, repeated about the bed. The windows looked upon the wintry park, and under a huge, marble mantelpiece, carved with tritons and wreaths of flowers, a fire burned. About the room were standing women—maids of honour,


tiring-women. Near the fire stood a group of men, silent, in attendance.

The Queen did not lie upon the bed—now she said that she could not endure it, and now she said that it was her will to lie upon the floor. They placed rich cushions and she lay among them at their feet, her gaunt frame stretched upon cloth of gold and coloured silk. She had upon her a long, rich gown, as full and rigid a thing as it was possible to wear and yet recline. Her head was dressed with a tire of false hair, a mass of red-gold; there was false colour upon her cheek and lip. She kept a cup of gold beside her filled with wine and water which at long intervals she put to her lips. Now she lay for hours very still, with contracted brows, and now she turned from side to side, seeking ease and finding none. Now there came a moan, and now a Tudor oath. For the most part she lay still, only the fingers of one hand moving upon the rim of the cup or measuring the cloth of gold beneath her. Her sight was failing. She had not eaten, would not eat. She lay still, supported upon fringed cushions, and the fire burned with a low sound, and the March wind shook the windows.

From the group of men by the fire stepped softly, not her customary physician, but another of some note, called into association during these last days. He crossed the floor with a velvet step and stood beside the Queen. His body bent itself into a curve of deference, but his eyes searched without rever-


ence. She could not see him, he knew, with any clearness. He was followed from the group by a grave and able councillor. The two stood without speaking, looking down. The Queen lay with closed eyes. Her fingers continued to stroke the cloth of gold; from her thin, drawn lips, coloured cherry-red, came a halting murmur: "England—Scotland—Ireland—"

The two men glanced at each other, then the Queen's councillor, stepping back to the fire, spoke to a young man standing a little apart from the main group. This man, too, crossed the floor with a noiseless step and stood beside the physician. His eyes likewise searched with a grave, professional interest.

"Navarre," went the low murmur at their feet."Navarre and Orange . . . . No Pope, but I will have ritual still. . . . England—Scotland—"

The Queen moaned and moved her body upon the cushions. She opened her eyes. "Who's standing there? God's death—!"

The physician knelt. "Madam, it is your poor physician. Will not Your Grace take the draught now?"

"No.—There's some one else—"

"Your Grace, it is a young physician—English—but who has studied at Paris under the best scholar of Ambroise Paré. He is learned and skilful. He came commended by the Duke of——to Sir Robert Cecil—"

"God's wounds!" cried the Queen in a thin, im-


perious voice. "Have I not told you and Cecil, too, that there was no medicine and no doctor who could do me good! Paré died, did he not? and you and your fellow will die! All die. I have seen a many men and matters die—and I will die, too, if it be my will!"

She stared past him at the strange physician. "If he were Hippocrates himself I would not have him! I do not like his looks. He is a dreamer and born to be hanged.—Begone, both of you, and leave me at peace."

Her eyes closed. She turned upon the cushions. Her fingers began again to move upon the rich stuff beneath her. "England—"

The rejected aid or attempt to aid stepped, velvet-footed, backward from the pallet. The physicians knew, and all in the room knew, that the Queen could not now really envisage a new face. She might with equal knowledge have said of the man from Paris, "He is a prince in disguise and born to be crowned." But though they knew this to be true, the Queen had said the one thing and had not said the other, and what she said had still great and authoritative weight of suggestion. The younger physician, returning to his place a little apart alike from the women attendants and from the group of courtiers, became the recipient of glances of predetermined curiosity and misliking. Now, as it happened, he really did have something the look of a dreamer—thin, pale, and thoughtful-faced, with


musing, questioning eyes. While according to accepted canons it was not handsome, while, indeed, it was somewhat strange, mobile, and elf-like, his countenance was in reality not at all unpleasing. It showed kindliness no less than power to think. But it was a face that was not usual. . . . He was fairly young, tall and well-formed though exceedingly spare, well dressed after the quiet and sober fashion of his calling. Of their own accord, passing him hastily in corridor or street, the people in the room might not have given him a thought. But now they saw that undoubtedly hewas strange, perhaps even sinister of aspect. Each wished to be as perspicacious as the Queen.

But they did not think much about it, and as the newcomer, after a reverence directed toward the Queen, presently withdrew with the older physician,—who came gliding back without him,—and as he was seen no more in the palace, they soon ceased to think about him at all. He had been recommended by a great French lord to the favour of Sir Robert Cecil. The latter, sending for him within a day or two, told him bluntly that he did not seem fitted for the Court nor for Court promotion.

The March wind roared through London and over Merry England and around Richmond park and hill. It shook the palace windows. Within, in the great room with the great bed, the old Queen lay upon the floor with pillows beneath her, with her brows drawn together above her hawk nose. At intervals her mor-


tal disease and lack of all comfort wrung a moan, or she gave one of her old, impatient, round, mouth-filling oaths. For the most part she lay quite silent, uneating, unsleeping, her fleshless fingers keeping time against the rich cloth beneath her. Her women did not love her as the women of Mary Stuart had loved that Queen. Year in and year out, day in and day out, they had feared this Queen; now she was almost past fearing. They took no care to tell her that the carmine upon her face was not right, or that she had pushed the attire of hair to one side, and that her own hair showed beneath and was grey. They reasoned, perhaps with truth, that she might strike the one who told. She lay in her rich garments upon the floor, and the fire burned with a low sound beneath the wreathed tritons and she smoothed the gold cloth with her fingers. "England—Scotland—Ireland. . . . Mere English—. . . The Pope down, but I'll have the Bishops still—"

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